The courtroom isn't a place that we normally associate with style or fashion. We optimistically assume that the justice system is impartial to soft factors like personal appearance. During my time as a defense attorney's intern at the Queens Criminal Courthouse, however, I learned that the opposite is true: how you look can greatly influence your time in court. For example, if you're a defendant on trial, jurors are not supposed to know if you're currently in or out of jail lest it affect their decisions. Fun fact: if you have a public interest lawyer and your family cannot or will not bring you court clothes, your attorney may be able to provide you with a suit temporarily.
New attorneys and interns will be told to "dress conservatively," but what does that mean beyond the obvious? I shadowed a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society for 13 weeks and came up with the following tips for effective personal style in a courtroom setting:
Consider commuting clothes. Public interest lawyers make less money on average than other attorneys but are still expected to be just as presentable. If you have to be in a suit or expensive shoes every day, you might not be able to afford the wear-and-tear on your clothes. Commute in cheaper, more comfortable clothing and change when you get to the office.
Know what you have on you. As someone who's worked as a bartender, I usually carry a corkscrew at all times. The security guards confiscated it in front of everybody on my first day and it was embarrassing. Remember to leave these things at home!
Skip the purse entirely if you can. Purses get searched every time you enter the building, but pockets don't. You also can't take handbags into secure areas, and it's a hindrance to have to leave them with court officers every time you want to conference with a client in the cells.
Invest in a sturdy bag if you need one. During my time at the Queens Criminal Courthouse, I switched to a floppy purse that had no way to latch closed. Every single time I went through a metal detector (several times a day), things would spill out of my handbag and onto the conveyor belt.
Wear loud ties. Every time my supervisor wore a brightly colored tie, the Assistant District Attorneys would tease him about it. This positive attention can go a long way towards establishing camaraderie!
Adopt a signature accent piece. I wore the same red lipstick every day to contrast with my conservative clothes, and the court officers learned my face astonishingly quickly considering how many hundreds of people pass through their courtrooms every day. Now that some judges are cracking down on women's professional dress, makeup might be the best way to assert your individuality.
Your best accessory is a book. It's annoying to have to carry it with you, but you'll almost definitely be sitting around for hours. Since passing the time on cellphones and other electronic devices is prohibited, you'll be glad you brought a book to read.
Personal appearance should theoretically be a non-factor in the courthouse, but in an environment where lines between facts and opinions get blurred and reinterpreted on a daily basis, I've found that sartorial choices matter more than they should. And if you're working in a courtroom that handles prostitution cases, do you really want to be wearing revealing clothing?
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